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Essay
Last Updated: 10/09/2009
John Lennon's Political Lyrics in Popular Culture: From Resistance and Activism To Incorporation and Commodification
Jaclyn Nardone

Aside from music being used a tool for personal expression, it also has the potential to influence social and political cultures. John Lennon, musician and social activist, has proven this to be true. Over the decades, Lennon’s songs have resembled reception and empowerment of human rights, and resistance and protest against war and hate. However, Lennon’s songs have also fallen victim to incorporation within the world of consumerism, being resurfaced and reused as symbols of commerciality, via industry and production. This essay will explore the subtexts of John Lennon’s songs, the ways in which they influence generations as tools of activism and how they have been used to generate mass profit in modern day culture.


Music is the medium that connects the written word to social rights issues, conveying a message of hope for the audience. Music is a form of freedom and expression, often used to evoke political issues, serving as an advocator, campaigner and inspirer of social justice. Melodies and lyrics that seek justice amid and beyond cities and nations, into the global realm, have marked significant eras in history and the fight for freedom and tolerance. This essay will explore the subtexts and dialectics of John Lennon’s songs; how they worked as political tools of resistance[1] and activism from the 1960s to the 21st century, via anti-war and peace movements, and how they have been contradictorily used as modern day tools for profit and commercial means, via incorporation.[2]

The Beatles were a milestone within music’s ‘rock era’ and influenced ‘rockology’ in Britain,[3] hence the term ‘rocktivism.’ John Lennon (1940-1980), world renowned musician (former ‘Beatle’ until 1969) and peace activist, used his music to fight unjust politics, promote his opposition to the Vietnam war, and express his love for the human race. “Music is always the result of people doing things together in particular places and times.”[4] Lennon’s songs were more than just popular music, they walked the streets with peace protesters and sustained anti-war movements; they were a voice of freedom for the oppressed and ill-treated. “Through lyrical messages of resistance, words in music become historically important as a medium of communication in culture and historical periods.”[5] Lennon’s music was a “form of paramount expression, the sound of protest, rebellion or even revolution.”[6] Lennon was quoted saying that: “reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”[7] This signifies how his creative music was used to fight the politics of his day and promote liberal leftist culture and ideologies, hence the notion of ideological forms.[8]

The cultural theorist debate which questions if the masses can truly appreciate art is derivative of elitist theories and Louis Althusser’s issues of power, which seek only to make art available and appropriated to the elite classes.[9] Lennon argued against these ideas, and rather invited everyone to enjoy his music as art, hence the democratization of culture.[10] As an expression of art, he and wife Yoko Ono posed nude for a CD cover to promote a natural and peaceful way of life and love. “John and Yoko believed anything could be considered art, including avant-garde recordings, and that art has the potential to change society for the better.”[11] Lennon understood that people could be changed, by changing the system; “the Irish, Russians and French did it [but] it got them nowhere. The same old game.”[12] Thus, Lennon was inspired to adapt new measures and change people and politics through his music. “Many of Lennon’s post-Beatles compositions rightfully became anthems, flaunting tough-minded realism, cosmic epiphany, hard-won idealism and visionary utopianism in equal measure.”[13]

“Culture is music,”[14] hence Lennon inevitably became part of popular musical and political culture. “One way of knowing whether something has become ‘part of our culture universe’ is to see whether you can interpret or ‘read it’ – whether you can understand what it means, what it is saying.”[15] Lennon’s songs were politically understood by the masses, but more specifically, by those who campaigned for his politics. However, there were many people who rejected Lennon’s ideas, such as those on the political right. John Street explains how “in the West, the political right has been terrified that [popular music] will undermine capitalism, family life, and traditional values.”[16] Republicans of the 1960s feared the power and inspiration that art could have on a liberal, democratic, and united people, hence the notion that art should be kept for the elite.

Political parties aside, music is used as a form of reception; “how people receive, interpret and use music as a cultural form while engaging in specific social activities.”[17] Lennon’s music brought people together amid anti-war protests and peace movements. “People enter movements as individuals and gain a sense of collective identity as part of the group effort.”[18] Lennon transformed his audience, via his treatment of the audience,[19] converting them from individual homogenous blobs into a collective of peace activists. In expressing how important the collective was to them, newlyweds Lennon and Ono invited the world into the celebration of their honeymoon in 1969. They invited the public media into their Amsterdam and Montreal hotel rooms to promote their ‘Bed-In For Peace’ campaigns, which not only celebrated their marriage, but more importantly, promoted world peace. The campaign inspired Lennon and Plastic Ono Band’s song Give Peace A Chance. This melody was repeatedly sung by a room full of unfamiliar friends, who were individual strangers before entering the hotel, hence the notion of collective reception. This song was used many times over during anti-war movements, such in the 1991 Gulf War protests.[20]

Some have claimed that “Lennon’s work fighting for peace and an end to the Vietnam war struck a chord with a whole generation,”[21] hence the notion of resistance. Lennon fought the British and American governments for their participation in the Vietnam war (1959-1975). In 1969, four years after receiving his MBE (Member of British Empire) award, Lennon returned it to the British Queen, “as a peace protest against the Vietnam war.”[22] Lennon was quoted saying “Your Majesty, I am returning my MBE as a protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against 'Cold Turkey' slipping down the charts. With Love, John Lennon.”[23] Royalty and recognition aside, Lennon always proved to follow through in supporting his beliefs and dreams of world peace and justice for all, and would take drastic measures to ensure that his voice would be heard.

Lennon’s song Happy Christmas (War Is Over) was more than a Christmas melody. December 15th 1969 launched the beginning of Lennon and Ono’s international billboard advertisement campaign; WAR IS OVER! If You Want It. This campaign, used as a protest against the Vietnam war, took place in over 12 countries worldwide.[24] “John and Yoko wrote a seasonal song that developed the themes of peaceful revolution that John had argued for with Imagine.”[25] The lyrics of Imagine envisioned a future when America would seek peace, via ending the Vietnam intervention, and the song Happy Christmas (War Is Over) sought to turn this vision into a reality. The song sung: “A very Merry Christmas, And a happy New Year, Let's hope it's a good one, Without any fear, War is over, If you want it, War is over, Now...”[26]

Lennon’s resistance and opposition against the Nixon regime in Vietnam led to the four year case of his deportation out of the USA, hence his title as a “musician, humanitarian, and national threat.”[27] The American FBI began to understand the immense power and impact Lennon had on the masse. Lennon’s song Freedom For John Sinclair fought the arrest of anti-war activist John Sinclair and eventually freed him from his prison cell, which he was subject to because of miniscule marijuana charges.[28] Lennon’s close relations with Bobby Seal, chairman of Black Panther Party, and political activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, proved he was developing a team that would work together to fight against unjust governmental practices. In 1971, the FBI intervened on Lennon, via wire-tapping and strict surveillance. Because of the threat Lennon posed to the running Republican leader, who vowed to continue on with regimes in Vietnam, serious measures were taken against the singer. “Your temporary stay in the United States has expired on February 29th 1972. It is expected your will effect your departure from the United States on March 15th1972. Failure to do so will result in the institution of deportation proceedings.”[29] Lennon was being forced out of America for many illegitimate reasons. However, Lennon fought the deportation charges and continued on with his music, hence the song Gimme Some Truth.

Many of Lennon’s songs were used as tools of resistance, to influence the political culture of his time, and are still very influential in contemporary society; “twenty years later, musical activism has become more expansive.”[30] Lennon’s famous songs Born In A Prison, Power To The People, and Revolution became more popular in later years, after Lennon’s sudden and tragic death in 1980. Woman Is The Nigger Of The World, inspired by wife Ono, would continue to promoted women’s rights well into future decades. Many of Lennon’s songs have be re-recorded by contemporary artists, such as U2’s version of Sunday Bloody Sunday and Green Day’s Working Class Hero.

Lennon’s song Instant Karma (We All Shine On) inspired the ‘Instant Karma: Save Darfur’ musical album. “Amnesty International’s new campaign uses the power of John Lennon’s music and the voices of millions of concerned people around the world to stop the horrific human rights abuses taking place in Darfur, Africa.”[31] In 2008, Hard Rock International, ‘Love All, Serve All,’ launched its ““Imagine There’s No Hunger” campaign to benefit WHY, a nonprofit organization that strives to fight against hunger and poverty in America and around the world.”[32] Ono donated Lennon’s song Give Peace A Chance to this cause. An educational bus, which would “teach children across America and Canada the fundamentals of recording music,”[33] was unveiled in Las Vegas on January 7th 2007 and dedicated to the late Lennon. Musicians Will.I.Am., Natasha Bedingfield and Pat Monahan all support this Lennon cause, and Ono’s belief that “music is power.”[34]

Lennon and Ono’s ‘Bed-In For Peace’ event became a part of popular culture that would resonate for years to come. In 2008, a re-enactment of the campaign took place at the Ben & Jerry’s New York ice cream store. The Lennon Estate and Peace One Day, a non-profit organization, collaborated with Ben & Jerry’s, the socially conscious ice cream company, “on joint effort to promote [the United Nation’s] Global Day of Ceasefire and Non-Violence.”[35] The 39th anniversary of Lennon and Ono’s ‘Bed-In For Peace’ campaign was celebrated, and homage was paid to the crucial days in 1969, when Lennon and Ono screamed for peace, in a country that was drowning in Vietnam upheavals. This event introduced a new ice cream; “the John Lennon tribute flavor “Imagine Whirled Peace,” a caramel and sweet cream based ice cream with toffee cookies and chocolate peace signs, was developed to further support Ben & Jerry's social mission campaign.”[36] There to support the campaign and further peace and social justice initiatives was Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Gilley, and Roy Kerwood. This day of celebration asked the world to Give Peace A Chance.

It seems as though Lennon was mainly remembered and honored in peaceful ways that endorsed his desire and passion for political activism. However, popular culture proves that this was not always the case. Through popular culture, Lennon has been stripped from the notions of peace and justice, and political and lyrical activism. Guilbault and Cohen indicate how “music is closely related to cultural identity. The meaning of music changes as it moves out from its point of origins.”[37] Lennon’s song Revolution originally explored ideas of changing the world, via evolutions, real solutions and changing the constitution and institutions.[38] This song once inspired a generation to fight for impartiality and justice, but has since been re-contextualized on the basis of identity politics, via its relations with the brand Nike. Today, this song is the anthem of Nike’s Revolution campaign.

The television commercial for Nike’s Revolution campaign promotes exercise, not world peace. It captures average people engaging in sport activities; runners, swimmers, speed walkers, basketball and tennis players, bicycle riders and dancers. Furious and upset footage of athletes loosing their games is broadcasted in congruence with the lyrics “when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.” [39] Opposing, the lyrics “it’s gonna be alright”[40] are emphasized with footage of athletes winning their games and cheering in triumph. The notion of Revolution can be understood in the evolution of the Nike shoe design, how the 21st century has made it possible for a shoe to culturally identify an athlete, and the longevity of the Nike brand. However, there is noting politically or justly Revolutionary (Lennonist style) about this commercial, Nike shoes as cultural products, or the message Nike is trying to convey. Among other Lennon songs, Revolution has been de-politicized and used as a branding strategy, hence the notions of commodity fetishism and exchange value,[41] to promote consumerism and sell a product of popular culture. Frith explains how Lennon’s legacy has been “caught between political idealism and commercial reality.”[42]

Dwite McDonald theorizes that in an age of mass industry and production, culture is produced the same way as everything else, and through processes manufacturing, it inevitably looses all value and meaning. Nike is about marketing, consumerism and profitability, hence the true meaning behind Lennon’s lyrics are ‘lost in limbo’ in Nike’s RevolutionLennon’s music has been commodified and assimilated into modern mainstream culture, hence stripping away the philosophical and political sensibilities of his songs. Nike’s involvement with child labor completely contradicts Lennon’s ideologies and beliefs of freedom, justice, liberty, and fair governmental practices for all humans. Nike, as a brand and lifestyle, inaccurately represents Lennon’s ideologies and music. This indicates a negative trend in using Lennon’s lyrics for hyperconsumerism and incorporation.[43]

Incorporation seeks to unite two or more pre-existing things to create a union, merging “different ingredients in one mass; mixture; combination; synthesis.”[44] Incorporation explains how political things become commidified.[45] Lennon’s songs are incorporated into mainstream popular culture and stripped of their original meaning in order to ‘bring in the bucks.’ In keeping with the theme of dominant consumerism, Stuart Hall states that hegemony is related to the incorporation “of the great majority of people into broadly based relations of cultural consumption. This requires the incorporation of culture into the sphere of market relations.”[46] Similarly, Thomas Frank explores the notion of counter-culture rebellion,[47] wherein Lennon’s songs have been repackaged and used to sell things and promote the consumer culture and capitalist ideology of the 21st century.[48]

Lennon’s songs have certainly sustained over the decades and within popular culture, for better or for worse; from operating as tools of resistance and activism, to being incorporated into profitable, mainstream popular culture. Lennon was a legendary artist, whose songs shaped the politics of the 1960s and beyond. His melodies sung their way through decades of protests, which sought to undermine the government, for the betterment of the people, all in the name of justice. In the midst of his death, Yoko Ono was quoted saying “I suppose they tried to kill John, but they didn’t because his message is still alive.”[49] As the years passed, Lennon’s popularity grew to new heights via popular culture. Whether he is remember through positive activism or selfish consumerism, Lennon left behind an impressive legacy and a collection of songs that will continue to Shine On.


[1] Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, V. (2009,02,12). “Popular Culture and Music” Class Notes: Popular Culture: 40-302. University of Windsor. Department of Communication Studies.

[2] Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, V. (2009,02,05). “Money For Nothing.” Class Notes: Popular Culture: 40-302. University of Windsor. Department of Communication Studies.

[3] Negus, K. (1996). Popular Music. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. P.4.

[4] Frith, S. (1989). World Music, Politics, and Social Change. New York: Manchester University Press. P.X.

[5] Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, V. (2009,02,12). “Popular Culture and Music” Class Notes: Popular Culture: 40-302. University of Windsor. Department of Communication Studies.

[6]Frith, S. (1989). World Music, Politics, and Social Change. New York: Manchester University Press. P.VII.


[7] Lawrence, K. (2005). John Lennon: In His Own Words. Andrews McMeel Publishing.

[8] Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, V. (2009,01,29). “Popular Culture as Mass Culture.” Class Notes: Popular Culture: 40-302. University of Windsor. Department of Communication Studies.

[9] Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, V. (2009,01,15). “Popular Culture as Mass Culture.” Class Notes: Popular Culture: 40-302. University of Windsor. Department of Communication Studies.

[10] Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, V. (2009,01,15). “Popular Culture as Mass Culture.” Class Notes: Popular Culture: 40-302. University of Windsor. Department of Communication Studies.

[11] Blaney, J. (2005). John Lennon: Listen To This Book. United Kingdom; Paper Jukebox, 2005. P.9.

[12] Blaney, J. (2005). John Lennon: Listen To This Book. United Kingdom; Paper Jukebox, 2005. P.9.

[13] “John Lennon.” Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame + Museum Online. <http://www.rockhall.com/inductee/john-lennon>.

[14] Jordan, G. and Weedon, C. “Cultural Politics: Class, Gender, Race and Post Modern World.” “Introduction What are Cultural Politics?” Cambridge, Mass.; Blackwell Publishers, pp. 3-18. P.7.

[15] Rose, T. (1994). Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. London: Westland University Press. P.8.

[16] Frith, S. (1989). World Music, Politics, and Social Change. New York: Manchester University Press. P.244.

[17] Negus, K. (1996). Popular Music. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. P.8.

[18] Reed, T.V. (2005). “The Art of Protest.” USA: University of Minnesota Press. P.32.

[19] Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, V. (2009,01,29). “Popular Culture as Mass Culture.” Class Notes: Popular Culture: 40-302. University of Windsor. Department of Communication Studies.

[20] (2009,01,02). John Lennon Biography.” NME: First For Music News Online. IPC Media. 1996. Retrieved: 11 Feb. 2009. <http://www.nme.com/artists/john-lennon>.

[21] (2000,11,03). “John Lennon’s legacy.” BBC News Online. Entertainment. Retrieved: 11 Feb. 2009.

[22] (2002, 01). “Beatles fans call for return of MBE medal rejected by John Lennon.” Telegraph
UK Online.
Retrieved: 11 Feb. 2009. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/4128022/MBE-medal-that\
John-Lennon-rejected-unearthed-in-royal-vault.html
>.

[23] (2002, 01). “Beatles fans call for return of MBE medal rejected by John Lennon.” Telegraph
UK Online.
Retrieved: 11 Feb. 2009. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturenews/4128022/MBE-medal-that\
John-Lennon-rejected-unearthed-in-royal-vault.html
>.

[24] Blaney, J. (2005). John Lennon: Listen To This Book. United Kingdom; Paper Jukebox, 2005. P.96.

[25] Blaney, J. (2005). John Lennon: Listen To This Book. United Kingdom; Paper Jukebox, 2005. P.99-101.

[26] Lyrics007 Online. (2008,05,27). “Happy Christmas (War Is Over).” Retrieved: 22 March. 2008.
<http://www.lyrics007.com/John%20Lennon%20Lyrics/Happy%20Christmas%20
(War%20Is%20Over)%20Lyrics.html

[27] Leaf, D. and Scheinfeld, J. (2006,12,07). “The U.S. vs. John Lennon.” Documentary/Biography Film.

[28] (2009). “The John and Lenin Sinclair Papers, 1957-1999 at the Bently Historical Library.” Bently Historical library. University of Michigan. Retrieved: 11 Feb. 2009.http://bentley.umich.edu/exhibits/sinclair/

[29] Leaf, D. and Scheinfeld, J. (2006,12,07). “The U.S. vs. John Lennon.” Documentary/Biography Film.

[30] Garofalo, R. “Who is the World? Reflections on Music and Politics Twenty Years After Live Aid.” Journal of Popular Music. 17. No.3. pp.324-344. P.3.

[31] “Instant Karma: The Campaign to Save Darfur.” Amnesty International Canada. Retrieved: 11 Feb. 2009. <http://www.amnesty.ca/instantkarma/>.

[32] (2008,12,08). “Hard Rock International Announces the “Imagine There’s No Hunger.” Campaign. John Lennon: The Official Site Online. Apple Corps. Ltd. Retrieved: 11 Feb. 2009. http://www.johnlennon.com/html/biography.aspx>.

[33] Gregory, J. (2008,01,10). “Yoko Ono Unveils John Lennon Educational Bus.” John Lennon: The Official. Apple Corps. Retrieved: 11 Feb. 2009.http://www.johnlennon.com/html/biography.aspx

[34] Gregory, J. (2008,01,10). “Yoko Ono Unveils John Lennon Educational Bus.” John Lennon: The Official. Apple Corps. Retrieved: 11 Feb. 2009. <http://www.johnlennon.com/html/biography.aspx

[35] (2008,27,05). “Ben & Jerry’s “Imagines Whirled Peace” by Holdings Bed-In to Recognize Today’s Peace Movement Leaders.” Business Publications Online. Retrieved: 24 March. 2009. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0EIN/is_2008_May_27/ai_n25456260

[36] (2008,27,05). “Ben & Jerry’s “Imagines Whirled Peace” by Holdings Bed-In to Recognize Today’s Peace Movement Leaders.” Business Publications Online. Retrieved: 24 March. 2009. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0EIN/is_2008_May_27/ai_n25456260>.

[37] Negus, K. (1996). Popular Music. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. P.31.

[38] Lyrics007 Online. (2008). “Revolution”. Retrieved: 24 March. 2009.
<http://www.lyrics007.com/The%20Beatles%20Lyrics/Revolution%20Lyrics.html>.

[39](2006). TV Commercial for Nike “Revolution.” Retrieved 24 March. 2009.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMXhtFik-vI

[40](2006). TV Commercial for Nike “Revolution.” Retrieved 24 March. 2009.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMXhtFik-vI

[41] Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, V. (2009,01,15). “Popular Culture as Mass Culture.” Class Notes: Popular Culture: 40-302. University of Windsor. Department of Communication Studies.

[42] Frith, S. (1989). World Music, Politics, and Social Change. New York: Manchester University Press. P.244.

[43] Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, V. (2009,02,05). “Money For Nothing.” Class Notes: Popular Culture: 40-302. University of Windsor. Department of Communication Studies.

[44] Dictionary.com Online. (2009). “Incorporation.” Retrieved: 24 March. 2009.
<http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/incorporation>.

[45] Scatamburlo-D’Annibale, V. (2009,02,05). “Money For Nothing.” Class Notes: Popular Culture: 40-302. University of Windsor. Department of Communication Studies.

[46] Hall, S., Morley, D., and Chen, K-H.. (2006). Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. Routledge Press.

[47] Frank, T. (1997). The Conquest of Cool: Online. USA: University of Chicago Press. Retrieve: 24 March. 2009. <http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/259919.html>.

[48] Frank, T. (1997). The Conquest of Cool: Online. USA: University of Chicago Press. Retrieve: 24 March. 2009. <http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/259919.html>.

[49] Leaf, D. and Scheinfeld, J. (2006,12,07). “The U.S. vs. John Lennon.” Documentary/Biography Film.


Jaclyn Nardone is an MA candidate at the University for Peace and a regular contributor to the Peace and Conflict Monitor.
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